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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Long lived Hugues Cuenod!

Hugues Cuenod around the time he came to the U.S., on the recommendation of Mary Garden, to sing in the American premiere of Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet (1929)

The legendary Swiss tenor Hugues Cuenod, or Huguie, as he was known to friends and family, was 108 when he died on Friday.

Huguie was a great musician who was famous for several astonishing achievements. One had to do with his extraordinary longevity - he not only lived to a spectacularly advanced age, but sang in public into his 90s.

Hugues Cuenod with Placido Domingo and Eva Marton in Puccini's Turandot at the Met, 1987

He made his Metropolitan Opera debut, singing the Emperor Altoum in Zefirelli's 1987 Turandot production, when he was nearly 85 years old:

He came to America at the urging of Mary Garden and sang on Broadway, in the premiere of Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet in 1929. Back in Europe, he was part of Nadia Boulanger's circle and is heard on her pioneering recordings of the work of Monteverdi. He was a member of the Princesse de Polignac's celebrated salon, where he frequently performed. He was the first person to record the vocal music of Couperin. He created five roles for Stravinsky, including Sellem in The Rake's Progress.

I knew Huguie through our mutual friend, my Juilliard mentor Albert Fuller (star and muse of Apparition of the Eternal Church). 

Zoltan Ovary, Albert Fuller, Hugues Cuenod

Albert, a harpsichord virtuoso, toured and recorded with Huguie, and toward the end of his life he translated Hugues Cuenod: With An Agile Voice: Conversations with Francois Hudry (for the record, Albert's translation had it "with a nimble voice"). I just opened the book to this passage, which perfectly represents Huguie as I remember him:
H.C.: I've never taken myself seriously, except, of course, when I have to work seriously. Above all, it's important not to take oneself seriously, particularly when you are around people who do just that.
F.H.: And at school, did you take that seriously?
H.C.: Never! I never liked school. The truth is, I never liked to work. I loved music, but I always wanted it to come straight to me without my needing to grasp whatever it might be. Even when I was in kindergarten it seems someone had already noticed I was musical. That was because I was able to pick out some songs I already knew on the piano with one finger. I could also be ill-natured. Once, when the teacher made a tactless remark to me about my family, I became enraged and threw my inkwell at her head. Happily, she stepped aside and the inkwell went through a pane of glass and crashed into a wall. All of a sudden my fellow students thought I was Luther who did something just like that to the devil!
I've posted words about Albert by Huguie, and about Huguie by Albert, on Albert Fuller's Rendezvous Lounge, along with pictures of the two of them. 

My first attempt at filmmaking was to fly to Switzerland, in 2000, to interview Cuenod on camera. I recorded several hours of our conversation over the course of five days or so, at his ancestral home at the center of Vevey, on the shore of Lake Geneva.

I returned twice more--once in 2003 to interview him for Apparition of the Eternal Church (he said the music sounded like someone rolling rocks around the bottom of a tin pan [Huguie's not in the film]), and once before that, with Albert, for the 100th birthday in the summer of 2002. Half of Switzerland showed up for the party, of which Huguie was the life. At one point the emcee handed Huguie the mike and had some difficulty getting it back. Here are some pictures I took of the event, at the Theatre de Vevey:

I spent Huguie's birthday week creating a scrapbook of images from the party and from his own archive, which people signed at the party:

Before leaving Vevey I presented it to Huguie, who spent an hour going through it, telling anecdotes evoked by the photos, while fielding calls from around the world and giving some fairly lacerating descriptions of what he endured at the birthday party (he left the event famished, since every time he brought a fork to his mouth some old lady appeared at his side and started spraying her appreciation and gratitude right into his food). There's a videotape of this conversation, also these pictures:

Huguie wasn't one to rush things. He made his Met debut at 84 and waited still two more years to meet his first longterm romantic partner, Alfred Augustin, 41 years his junior. They were, according to this Washington Post obit, joined in a Swiss civil union three years ago (though they exchanged private vows many years before that).

On Friday with friends I will raise a glass to Huguie's memory, pouring a bottle he gave me from his vineyard in Morges.

Albert and Huguie in Morges (it sounds like a Poulenc opera):

I've been meaning for years to crack open those MiniDV tapes and edit them into something watchable. I wish I had the time to do it now, but since I don't I will leave you with these images from Huguie's archive, and, courtesy of YouTube, a radio interview (at the end of which Albert gets a mention), and Huguie's recording of some Poulenc songs.

As M. Triquet in Eugene Onegin

"Cavalli 1970"


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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Emergency Broadcast System: Screening, party & prize

Three pieces of great news for
The Glitter Emergency and all who had a hand in making it - First, Saturday night there's a screening at the Hypnodrome. Second, next month brings a private benefit screening (you're invited) at a beautiful home where much of the film was shot. Third, the film won a prize - Best Experimental Film at the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood. Details follow:

The Glitter Emergency proudly stars Rumi Missabu, an original member of the legendary Cockettes, as one of the Peg-Leg Ballerina's Depraved Evil Stepsisters (opposite Eric Glaser). Saturday's screening will be part of a mini Rumi festival following her return to the long-running (and terrific) revival of the Cockettes musical Pearls Over Shanghai at the Hypnodrome, possibly the coolest theater in San Francisco. I will accompany Glitter live, playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. It will also be the first screening of a major new edit that I'm very excited about.

Here are the details:

A Special Evening of New Films starring Cockette Rumi
Saturday, August 28, 10:30 p.m.
The Hypnodrome - 575 10th Street (btwn. Bryant & Division)
  • Uncle Bob, directed by Robert Oppel
  • The Glitter Emergency
  • Interiors, directed by David Riley

The Glitter Emergency has no better friends than my neighbors Mavis and Carole - they helped this film every step of the way. They appear in the film in high drag. They let us take over their beautiful home on Liberty Hill to shoot the opening balcony scene and bedroom scenes between Peggy and Stringendo. They hosted a dinner table at the premiere. And now they're throwing this private benefit screening on Saturday, September 12th at 2 p.m. at their movie star of a house. We'll screen the film, I'll accompany it live, talk about the production and pass the hat (contributions are fully tax-deductible). The production is in significant financial debt, and I've had to suspend film festival submissions while I try to raise money. So if you can contribute anything at all and would enjoy a private screening of the film amid terribly hip and amusing people, email me at and I'll give you the details for the 9/12 party.

Please pop a bottle of bubbly on behalf of The Glitter Emergency!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

Last night I saw The Kids Are All Right for the second time in three days, this time with James and friends. At dinner afterward I asked everyone their favorite scene, and the consensus choice was the moment Annette Bening’s character Nic returns to a dinner party from a trip to the bathroom that revealed her wife’s hair in their sperm donor’s shower drain. Minutes before, Nic had been the life of this party, embarrassingly so, trying too hard to make nice with the man she intuitively dislikes who has in a matter of weeks charmed her (their) teen children and her wife (Julianne Moore as Jules). Now she takes her seat at the poisoned banquet (the meat is served blood-rare, and reference has been made to a live animal on a plate) not in a rage, but in the preceding calm, and the scene gives us a virtual-reality tour of Nic’s devastated consciousness. We see her stunned, automatic glances at the apparent strangers around the table. We hear the table banter go nasal and dim, unintelligible background noise against the sound of her downing a medicinal draught of wine. White noise rises; it could be wind in a canyon or a distant river of bees. Only a few seconds pass before the audio rights itself, but in that suspended moment both Nic and the film have undergone a transformation. Nic is no longer just the perfectionist overachieving careerist, smothering mother and neurotic middle-aged wife who irritates us as much as she does her family, she is a woman we know intimately who has had a baseball bat applied to her spirit. And the film has shed the disguise of an artfully done situation comedy and presented itself as a powerfully unfolding domestic tragedy.

As someone in an open relationship who thinks that, in most cases, monogamy is an emotional glue trap couples set for themselves at marriage and routinely forget about until one spouse finds the other, or herself, or the whole marriage, mired in adhesive and near death by various toxicities and deprivations, I find myself chronically alienated from my culture. Failure seems to me so deeply baked into the whole idea of monogamy that literary, cinematic, political and journalistic storylines built on its violation can’t hold my interest. Novelists froth up their plots, governors find their Argentinian vacations ruined, golfers lose their endorsements – I’ve heard this one already. Faced with the monogamy hysteria that drives Tolstoy from Anna Karenina’s opening unhappy family to its closing train tracks, I am emotionally handicapped by a bitchy gay voice in my head always asking, when will these people find some less stale fodder for their drama? Infidelity, as a plot device, has been done.

That bitchy gay voice sat in stunned silence watching The Kids Are All Right, along with the voices telling me I had to pee and that I wasn’t going to leave the theater for a second time with tears streaming down my face. The rare-steak scene wasn’t alone in pulling emotional levers through ingenious aesthetic devices. When the kids bring home their donor (Mark Ruffalo as Paul) to meet the moms, the scene is shot on the back porch at high noon. One shot is overexposed, the next suffers from poor contrast. In one shot a face is obscured by someone’s hand; in the next, it’s a wine bottle in the way. The picture has an overly grainy, weirdly antiqued look. Actors talk with their mouths full. All of this sets up the following scene: Nic is grilling the life out of Paul, Jules is calling Nic out on her drinking, Paul is calling Nic out on grilling him, the kids are mortified. Even if it were shot normally you would squirm under the awkwardness, but with the glitchy lighting and color correction and camera work you’re subjected to something truly excruciating, because you’re no longer watching a big-budget Hollywood movie with A-list actors, you’re watching your own home movies. You may not have a sperm donor or lesbian moms in your family, but you’ve been at this lunch. Hell is other people at a family meal.

In terms of its characters, The Kids Are All Right is the most evenly balanced ensemble piece of fiction I can name. A valid case could be made that this is any of the five characters’ story: It could be Nic's, or it could be the story of Joni, tantalizingly close at 18 to adulthood, learning how to get there from a man who never really did. Or it’s the story of Jules, whose need for approval and security has stymied a succession of careers and made her unhappily dependent on and resentful of her wife. Or it’s the story of Paul, a middle-aged man whose narcissism and conquest lust causes him to throw away an irreplaceable chance at familial love. Over the course of the film, 15-year-old Laser might get slightly short shrift in the quintet – let’s call him the viola of the ensemble – but as if to equally distribute the narrative weight the filmmakers give him the opening shot and the last.

One thing I appreciated about The Kids Are All Right is close to the heart of this blog, or at least its title – the film is resolutely post-gay. It’s not a film about gay marriage as much as it’s a film about marriage, and it's about marriage mostly insofar as it's about child-rearing, about the crazy-making dread a mother experiences on the eve of losing a daughter to her independence, about male instincts of sexual adventurism going to war with maternal instincts of family-preservation. I listened carefully the second time for moments in the film that when gay marriage per se came to the fore, and the most poignant one I caught was Joni’s tart drunken line about having done everything Nic wanted her to, gotten straight-A’s and gotten into every college so that Nic could show the world her perfect lesbian family. But even that is as much about the pressures faced by any (aspiring) model minority as it is specifically about gay marriage, or gay families.

Toward the end of the film Jules begs her family for forgiveness:
“Your mom and I are in hell right now and the bottom line is marriage is hard. It’s really fuckin hard. It’s just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing - fucking marathon, OK? So sometimes you know you’re together so long you stop seeing the other person, you just see weird projections of your own junk. Instead of talking to each other, you go off the rails and act grubby and make stupid choices which is what I did and I feel sick about it because I love you guys, and your mom, and that’s the truth. And sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most and I don’t know why. You know if I read more Russian novels… Anyway…I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what I did. I hope you’ll forgive me eventually. Thank you.”
What kind of long-term intimate relationship could this not describe? To say that The Kids Are All Right is about gay marriage is like saying Anna Karenina is about Russian marriage: a perfectly accurate statement that is almost entirely beside the point. The fact that gay characters are at the heart of a film this big and this good, and in which homosexuality is such a secondary concern, strikes me as a watershed event in the maturation of the culture and the movement. A crucial element of the achievement is the depth of these characters’ flaws, any one of whom could be Jules in Paul's bed, staring at the ceiling and repeating, “I am so fucked up!” The film itself emerges as the corrective foil to Nic’s stifled picture-perfect lesbian family: The Kids Are All Right is a film free of model minorities, and that’s what I call liberation.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Paul's dog's log blog

James suggested the title, following Bob Loblaw's Law Blog, and the idea was that Ziggy would narrate, following Flush, how I planted a tree in front of the house on my 40th birthday. But Ziggy's busy napping on James, who's busy reading Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present, so I'm going to assume responsibility for the blog, as usual.

"You're really owning this 40 thing," someone said to me. Maybe making a film in eight weeks to have it ready for the birthday party was excessive, but if you're going to pull a two-month all-nighter I say do it in your 30s while you still have the energy. Anyone who had any proximity to the production knows that The Glitter Emergency took a toll on me and bystanders of varying degrees of innocence, and more than one person warned me against going immediately on vacation when it was through, mindful of Wall Street types who celebrate the first day of vacation with a nice coronary. So the film premiered on the eve of 40 and on the birthday itself, I had a project: plant a tree in the derelict planter in front of our house (see above).

After James delivered a conference paper in the morning, he and I went to lunch on Castro Street (unheard of luxury) and took a book with us: Mike Sullivan's The Trees of San Francisco. This is a great book by an old friend who's an attorney by trade and totally OCD about trees in his spare time. James and I went through the book picking out trees that seemed like a good fit for our Jacaranda-lined block, and after much deliberation decided on a Jacaranda. But when we got to the nursery, there were no Jacarandas to be had (not even for ready money) and so we settled on a Ceanothus 'ray hartman,' which blooms blue.

Glitter Emergency press in the Weekly and the Guardian had reached all the way out to Sloat Garden Center, resulting in unexpected celebrity treatment and a friends & family discount on the tree and accessories. Back home, James and Ziggy recovered from the day's exertions while I performed the following tasks:

While I was planting the tree, James was making my birthday cake, and a card arrived from Mavis & Carole. It says, "one cannot have too large a party." It's a coded message - "Festa" means "party" in Italian, and they (my honorary lesbian aunts) are always telling me I'm too thin. Proof: the card came with a See's gift card.

The tree one month after planting, on June 28th. The plastic containers are my elaborate drip-watering system.

Green shoots up top where the tree had been dead a month ago: